Á la small-town mode:

🕔Apr 07, 2010

People in the North(west) know a thing or two about style. When it comes to fashion decisions, practicality is just as important as looking cool. Like in Telkwa, where style choice often depends on what’s available at the dump (aka Telkwa Mall).

By thumbing their noses at the New York flavours of the month, rural society has developed a style sense that is much more enduring. A few quick examples include wearing knee-high snow boots to the nightclub, boot liners around the house, and acceptance of all kinds of facial and body hair, no matter what the occasion.

What is sometimes misunderstood as impropriety is in fact a style statement. The odd time one does detect a perfume, or spot a guy in a swanky blazer, it’s a special moment. And shouldn’t self-consciously refined style be reserved for only an exceptional occasion? It’s easy to get too ‘downtown.’

Gaudy, busy, trashy even—these are all legit styles in the Canadian hinterlands. It’s the freedom to wear whatever you want, whenever you want, to embrace the dissonance of comfort married with anything-goes. When it’s ok to wear fleece pants on a date, you have à la small town mode.

Shabby chic, or trashy?
While an ex-city guy like me may feel every bit the small-town hipster sporting a Rent-A-Wreck toque and Work King jacket patched with pleather and stitched with dental floss, some fashionistas call that bad taste.

True, there is more to (north)western fashion; like the ski hill “check me out” fluorescents, or the “don’t worry, the economy’s under control” reserved civil-servant wardrobe, and the “hey, isn’t this just like Hawaii!” aquatic-centre flamboyance.

“You can’t go uptown in sweatpants—it’s wrong!” opines Caroline, owner of Salt Boutique, a leading fine-clothing retailer in Smithers.

“When I moved here from Sweden, I was horrified. I saw all the patchwork and quilting, and I thought, ‘you can’t wear that!’”

This perceived gap in the clothing market inspired Caroline to open her boutique just over a year ago. Sales of her über-comfortable $230 jeans have been steady.

Fashion phobia is still a common concern for retailers in the (North)west, though. “People are stubborn about trying on clothes,” says Liliana Stupar, a retired model who owns Liliana’s Fashions in Prince George. “How many have I seen going around town in pajama bottoms…it’s horrible!”

Both Liliana and Caroline order their stock from afar—Caroline from Scandinavia, and Liliana from Ontario and Quebec. When fashion designers do set up shop in the North(west), it frequently proves short-lived. Liliana tells of modelling agencies like Prince George’s La Mode relocating to Vegas, and designers high-tailing it to Tokyo.

Is rural fashion relevant?

An online search reveals that the words “rural” and “fashion” aren’t often connected. Searching “urban fashion” gets a deluge of entries. Does the typical reserve and modesty of rural sensibilities really preclude trend influence?

“Designers are inspired by the environment around them: other countries, cultures, other ways of life, foods, music…and sometimes that means rural,” explains Lucia Dell’Agnese, the Associate Chair and Professor at Ryerson’s School of Fashion in Toronto. “Certain recent trends come to mind…equestrian boots and garment styling, lumber-jacket plaids, toile du jour fabric prints that depict country or outdoor settings.”

The use of First Nations symbols (the inukshuk logo) and design (Cowichan-style sweaters) for this year’s winter Olympics’ merchandise are an example of rural culture influencing mainstream fashion, and a reminder of the resentment that results from appropriation.

“Certain retailers coined the phrase ‘fast fashion,’ and now there is a backlash to that, in that this is creating landfill sites filled with polyester garments that will not break down.”

Dell’Agnese sees the fashion industry’s recent turn toward environmental practicality (such as using organic dyes) and earth-consciousness (knowing where and how fabrics were originally harvested) as being part of a classically rural philosophy.

While this does seem like a rather sentimental view of country life, it is at least telling of how rural society is perceived within the urban fashion world: as earthy, practical, holistic. The visibility of talented and generous local knitters and clothing-makers, many producing beautiful, sustainable fashion, attests to the truthfulness of this perception.

“Thrift stores used to be for the poor,” says Loretta, who co-operates New to You in Smithers, where the most fashionable over-80 crowd hangs out. Here a shopper can find two-dollar secondhand shirts and pants, the prices not brand-adjusted like at Value Village.

“Build your wardrobe wisely and it will be eternal,” advises Caroline back at Salt Boutique.

It seems secondhand and high-quality generally makes the most eco-sense.

Fashion past and fashion future
Hetherington and Hooper, a Smithers clothing retailer of 40 years, started out selling rubber boots and blue jeans.

“The loggers used to really dress up on their days off,” recalls Mike, who has worked here since the 70s. “Now they wear Carhartts at work, and then a cleaner pair to go out to the bar.

Mike and co-worker Kelly agree that people don’t dress up enough for weddings and funerals anymore.

Marla, who works at The Salvation Army Thrift Store in Houston, has noted that at church it isn’t uncommon to see a fellow parishioner in jeans. “Compared to the Lower Mainland, people dress far more casually for church,” she comments.

In Houston, retail scarcity has meant that people’s styles are more reflective of the Sears catalog than anything else. This is changing, however. A few blocks over from the thrift store is the Ghost Valley Trading Post, opened just before Christmas. Here a shopper can funk it up with a pair of vintage purple equestrian boots, rock-’n’-roll T-shirt and hoodie.

It could be that a kind of cosmopolitanism is taking remoter areas by storm, making people who were once happily unconcerned with superficialities more conscious about the image they present to the rest of the world. No longer is rural culture content to be two fashion seasons behind the eastern cities; it is now ready to set its own trends.

Suddenly, paint splats add a proud spice to casual work-wear. Sawdust in the hair becomes charming highlights. A long blade of grass between the teeth is now a stylish alternative to a cigarette.

Style showdown
While one person may feel cool wearing a high-viz vest and chaps into Starbucks, this will be deemed inappropriate by others (“Go back to Tim Horton’s, you brute!”). What goes in Telkwa may not be kosher in Hazelton-Kispiox, where there’s a bit more equestrian up-dressing going on. A guy from Prince George with too much gel in his hair may look out of place among the oily-shirted skippers of Prince Rupert, having chosen the wrong kind of grease for the occasion.

All these styles are kind of duking it out to be the hottest thing going. It’s an exciting time for fashion in the (North)west. Some people say that Smithers is going to become the next Toronto, once global warming makes the summers longer.

Fashion is seasonal and cyclical, like wildflowers and salmon runs. In spring and summer, out come the “lavenders, olive greens, yellow, and pinks,” Liliana says, with a prophetic air. As though we wore not clothes on our bodies, but plants. And plants sure are sexy!